The first time the three of us tried to go to Sagada was last year, when a storm broke through the Manila seawall and flooded the US Embassy in Manila and the rest of southern Luzon.
I say “tried” because we didn’t make it to Sagada. Instead, we got stuck in a very wet, nearly flooded, very cold Baguio City that weekend. I still have memories of sitting in a KFC after our trip, all of us so tired and wet we were snapping at each other, and then rushing into more rain so we could book ourselves in the first comfortable, cozy, well-lit hotel (which had steaming hot water and soft blankets and room service) after that eight-hour waiting game in Halsema Highway. I remember not waking up my best friend when the tree tumbled off a slope, past the highway, followed by mud. I’m not sure she would’ve thought it fun the way I did.
But that was last year, and this is now.
I guess the vast difference between last year and this year (ie, we actually made it to Sagada this year) contributed to the lack of complaints about the rainy weather. It was a seven-hour bus ride from Baguio (and it was six hours from Manila to Baguio, and all of us had come from ten hour days in our respective offices before that, not to mention the horrible pre-long-weekend Friday night traffic of Metro Manila which contributed to another four hours of me being on the road), and all we were thinking about when we got to Sagada was checking into St. Joseph and our cottage, dropping off our stuff, and finding food.
We found food in Masferre, a cozy little restaurant whose only other customers were a French family. They didn’t bother turning on any lights for us, so we sat by the windows to get whatever light we could from the rainy afternoon. One of the servers was practicing Alison Krauss with a guitar in between serving us our food. It was still raining. And it felt good to be sitting upright without worrying about being tossed out of my seat with the next zigzag.
The last time I was in Sagada was as an adolescent in the 90’s. It was, especially then, a dangerous drive along Halsema Highway, and we only had Heber Bartolome and Queen’s cassette tapes with us. The danger, other than overdosing on a heady mix of folk music and Freddie Mercury, was driving through the endlessly twisty highway. During that summer back in the mid-90’s, Halsema was fraught with falling rocks, and when we looked back where we had gone, we could see that the road we travelled on was really just a slab of cement perched warily on some land. Yes, “some.”
But I remember that I could really only describe Sagada in one phrase after that trip: “Shangri-la.” While most of that trip’s memories are lost to me, and the handful of memories I had from that first trip had to do with photographs of memories. Malongs being bunched up under door cracks to keep the cold out. My sister showing up with blackberry stains around her mouth. Mountain tea. Drinking water from a “poso,” the metallic taste of it. Slipping down mountain slopes. And, like a treasure, I carried around with me the only vivid mental image of rice terraces and the land glowing greenly like a jewel in the sunlight.
This time around, 2012, Halsema Highway was still a dizzying highway, and in some places, the tractors had failed to scoop up the debris from the landslides. And I talked at length about that highway in another entry, because, there are really times when the journey is almost as good as the destination.
Sagada is what you would imagine a small mountain town would feel like. Where everyone knew everyone, and you could walk around and into homes and be welcomed with a cup of tea. There was one main street where all the stores and restaurants were clustered around, and that was the same street you walked on to get to the caves. Another road led out of the town and back into Halsema, and then another road led up the hill and to other places. That’s it. Three roads to remember, and in the middle was the market, the church, and, because this is the Philippines, a basketball court. There were chickens on top of trees.
Past the church, a cemetery, stone markers, and a lot of cow dung and thoughts of Wuthering Heights is Echo Valley and its rugged beauty. My most favorite part of the trip was when Stef and Jacs and I sat down in the natural dap-ay and prayed to and worshipped our God. My church in Metro Manila is a big air conditioned mega church with state of the art sound equipment, and it has absolutely nothing on the stunning vista that surprised us.
Sumaguing Cave was smaller than I remembered, but no less fun and majestic. We climbed and slipped and walked and got wet. It was beautiful.
There seems to be nothing else to do in Sagada except sit and drink in the cool mountain air, then walk off to eat and breathe in the cool mountain air. We discovered what must be the most potent yoghurt in the history of yoghurt. It’s so potent it can write a book on philosophy and/or have coffee with Ayn Rand. I discovered what must be one of the best ways to enjoy Yoghurt House’s yoghurt: by breaking off chunks of oatmeal and raisin cookies (which they didn’t have) on top of it.
We also met a most charming dog in a place called Gaia (just keep walking to Sumaguing Cave from the town and you’ll see it right before the beautiful view of rice terraces and waterfalls) which served a breathtaking view and vegan fare. They had a little shop that was chockful of books and bric-a-bracs (which, of course, we wasted good money on). When I wandered off to get a couple of shots, the dog met me on my way back and jumped enthusiastically into my arms. As if she was saying, “awesome view, right?! I LIVE HERE!”
The main mode of transportation in Sagada is walking. There’s nothing else. And walking is one of the most pleasant things to do in that corner of the mountain. No hurry to get to wherever, no deadline to chase, no pretentiousness to think about.
On our way home, we saw a rainbow below us and hanging over some rice terraces.
There are other websites out there that can give you a more complete view of the spots in Sagada. These are just some of my memories of that quaint little town. And if it feels like this blog entry is incomplete, it’s only because I’m planning to head back to Sagada in the very near future.
It’s one of those places that needs to be revisited, and often. It is also, officially, one of my places now.